How Sacramento went from ghost town to a chapter of skateboarding history
When it started in the 1950s, skateboarding was called “sidewalk surfing,” used by surfers to maintain muscle-memory when the waves calmed. It was popularized in the ’70s and ’80s, a technically intoxicating action sport that attracted rebels and outcasts.
Skateboarding has hit the big time. It will be featured in the Olympics for the first time, in 2020 in Tokyo. It is a $5 billion industry worldwide. It’s everywhere, in video games such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and movies including 2018’s Skate Kitchen—and in Sacramento’s backyards and streets.
Sac has been a blip on the skateboarding scene compared to Santa Cruz and the sport’s birthplace, Los Angeles. But the city has its share of heavy-hitters: Girl Skateboards pro Brandon Biebel is known worldwide; Omar Salazar has his own shoe with Nike’s skateboarding division; and Henry Sanchez made waves with his Blind Skateboards video “Tim and Henry’s Pack of Lies” in 1992.
Sacramentans even helped invent classic tricks. The “no comply,” aka the step-hop—where skateboarders jump with the board using one foot to clear gaps and obstacles—was popularized by Sacramento legends Randy Smith and Ray Barbee.
“We weren’t just lightweight skaters,” said John Cardiel, a local pro who snagged Thrasher magazine’s coveted Skater of the Year award in 1992.
SN&R caught up with a few longtime skate rats to revisit Sacramento’s rise in skateboarding.
X-21 and VHS
Downtown Sacramento in the ’90s was quiet. A ghost town after work, skaters flocked to unmarked curbs and ledges, forging memories on Sutter Middle School’s smooth and shaded pavement on I Street and the Cesar Chavez Plaza grounds on J.
“Sidewalks everywhere, ledges, handrails everywhere,” Cardiel said.
Alongside skaters were police officers, particularly Gary McLaughlin, who local pro Mike Rafter said “definitely, probably, confiscated more skateboards than any other cop I could even imagine anywhere.”
Skaters often take refuge at skate shops, re-upping on boards and wheels, editing photos and videos and watching clips by companies such as 411 Video Magazine. Kids purchase their first board and interact with other skaters, including local pros.
Sacramento, however, didn’t have many shops in the ’90s, with Mountain & Surf Pro Shop on K Street being the biggest. People did not steal from it “because the employees were cool,” Rafter said.
Before it became a skateshop, X-21—at 21st and X streets—was a used clothing and furniture thrift store that sold skateboards at half-price. The shop, which eventually closed, had expanded its skateboarding inventory and shrunk the rest, becoming Sacramento’s homegrown skate shop run by a then-17-year-old Rafter, who later rode for Creature Skateboards and Santa Cruz Skateboards, both based in Santa Cruz.
In 1993, he got sponsored by Chapter 7 Skateboards in San Diego. Rafter traveled abroad and regularly toured other states, shooting photos and filming videos for Thrasher magazine. He worked alongside the late Jake Phelps (1962-2019) on features and the competitive skateboard scavenger hunt “King of the Road.”
Back at the shop, Rafter and his longtime friend Domingo Vasquez videotaped everything they could and released a few shoots, including a 30-minute video featuring other locals such as Aric Hondel and Matt Rodriguez.
The series of VHS tapes, one of which is titled “X-21 VIDEO 3,” kick-started careers. Skaters jumped huge gaps, strung together successful tricks and slammed hard. Joe Sierro (who went on to ride for Think Skateboards), Mako Urabe (People Skateboards), Aric Hondel (who helped Rafter create Flatspot skateshop on 21st Street, a successor to X-21), Matt Rodriguez (Chapter 7), Rafter and others became staples.
“All the skaters from the ’90s ended up in [those videos], and then they were all pro skaters,” Rafter said.
He bounced between filming and skating and eventually landed a job as a photographer and videographer at Thrasher.
Rodriguez also filmed videos in Sacramento. Like Rafter, Rodriguez grew up around downtown. Before riding for Stereo Skateboards (founded by My Name Is Earl actor Jason Lee) in 1992, Rodriguez’s first sponsor was Blockhead Skateboards in Roseville. That sponsorship led to Chapter 7, then to Mountain & Surf, then Stereo, where most of his “1996 Tincan Folklore” video was filmed in Sacramento, including along Capitol Mall and Sacramento City College.
“[My friends and I] used to skate Memorial Auditorium, then we’d go to the Twin Towers,” Rodriguez said. “It used to have the big pyramid in the middle. That, Cesar Chavez Plaza and Memorial [Auditorium] was our stomping grounds.”
While Rafter’s X-21 established a hub for Sacramento skaters to create videos, Rodriguez helped create a haven were they could congregate: 1814 19th Street, now a Safeway.
Rodriguez recalled Sacramento not having a single skate park in the ’90s; the closest was in Benicia, 52 miles southwest.
“Eventually, we just got fed up,” Rodriguez said. “We had a little renegade, public domain park at 19th and R. … We brought ramps there, flat bars, and we even did some concrete. We basically forced the city to get behind it. All the skaters around at the time all came together and helped out.”
Through the efforts of Rodriguez and Rafter, Sacramento got its first real skatepark: 28th and B Street Skate Park, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2020.
All three pros miss the old times.
“I feel like the skateboard energy in the greater Sacramento area is all contained in these skateparks,” Cardiel said. “I don’t see waxed curbs. I don’t see waxed ledges.”
The streets have also changed, Rafter said.
“The architecture has changed so significantly that there’s less things to skate [in downtown],” he said. “If you would’ve built that same stuff in the ’90s we would’ve been all over it because there was no security.”
But Sacramento is still breeding skaters of impeccable caliber, said Rodriguez, who teaches classes at 28th and B. He’s stoked about new local pros, including PLA Skateshop’s Bryan Whalen and Miles Silvas, and listed other amateurs, including Anthony Gonzales, David Failla, John Worthington and Sean Bluiett.
Rafter says he doesn’t skate much anymore, busy handling software for Apple. After a spinal cord injury in 2004, Cardiel doesn’t skate much either, but often hustles through traffic on a fixed-gear bike.
Rodriguez still skates casually and professionally. “We been putting Sac on the map way before we had a basketball team, and skateboarding will continue to do that and it does,” Rodriguez said. “Worldwide, people think of California—Frisco, L.A. Better believe Sacto’s in there.”